As you read these words, the 70th anniversary of the greatest land/sea invasion the world had ever seen will have passed into the pages of history.
Most of those who survived the landing on the French beaches of Normandy have passed into history as well. Few remain to bear witness to that awful June 6 day, in the depths of a world war to end the bloody grip the Nazis held on Europe.
In the Academy Award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan,” no cinema has ever been able to capture the horror, the almost schizophrenic courage-sapping first moments, as landing craft sent thousands and thousands of American, English and Canadian soldiers to their deaths on five bloody beaches.
Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah ... and of course, Omaha.
All etched into the minds of the soldiers who faced near certain death, weighed down by 60 pounds of equipment per man, charged by their leaders with finding some way to force the superbly equipped, well-trained and hardened German soldiers from that small strip of soil and sand.
Many survivors of that challenging day in 1944 said the film’s first few minutes exactly captured what they saw and what they experienced.
For all those men, it was miserably cold for early June on the French coast, between spring storms that had lashed the Atlantic waters and the English Channel.
The water temperature was perhaps 45 degrees as 1st Lt. Robert Edlin, a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, came ashore in the Omaha beach assault — his landing craft mired on a sandbar fully 75 yards short of land.
In Edlin’s words: “I began to run with my rifle in front of me. I went directly across the beach to try to get to the seaway. In front of me was part of the 116th Infantry, pinned down and lying behind beach obstacles. They hadn’t made it to the seaway. I kept screaming at them, ‘You have to get up and go! You gotta get up and go!’ But they didn’t. They were worn out and defeated completely. There wasn’t any time to help them.”
The Ranger wrote there were no shell holes to take cover in, no mines had been detonated by the air corps as had been hoped. Nothing prevented the German machine gunners from shooting and killing everything in their path on that bare expanse of beach.
“When I was about 20 yards from the seaway I was hit by what I assume was a sniper bullet. It shattered and broke my right leg,” Edlin went on. “I thought, well, I’ve got a Purple Heart. I fell, and as I did, it was like a searing hot poker rammed into my leg. My rifle fell 10 feet or so in front of me. I crawled forward to get to it, picked it up, and as I rose on my left leg, another burst of I think machine-gun fire tore the muscles out of that leg, knocking me down again.”
Bodies were strewn everywhere — and parts of men, who had been torn asunder from machine gun bullets, mines and mortar rounds.
It was Dante’s Inferno, as landing craft continued to disgorge their human cargo on that beach — and certain death for many.
“I looked back to the sea,” the Texan wrote, after the first wave had come ashore. “There was nothing. There were no reinforcements. I thought the invasion had been abandoned. We would be dead or prisoners soon. Everyone had withdrawn and left us. Well, we had tried. Some guy crawled over and told me he was a colonel from the 29th Infantry Division. He said for us to relax, we were going to be OK. D, E, and F Companies were on the Pointe (du hoc). The guns had been destroyed. A and B Companies and the 5th Rangers were inland. The 29th and Ist Divisions were getting off the beaches.
“This colonel looked at me and said, ‘You’ve done your job.’ I answered, ‘How? By using up two rounds of German ammo on my legs?’ Despite the awful pain, I hoped to catch up with the platoon the next day.”
That snippet of eyewitness history, as told by a highly decorated soldier who had it etched into his consciousness for the rest of his days, was a common account of the Normandy Invasion.
The Americans on Omaha fought above and beyond that brutal June day.
They somehow dislodged the Germans — on guts and will alone.
Who knows how they did it.
They went inland, pushing the Germans back, leaving the sand strewn with the blood and bodies of unsung heroes, who today rest in the row-upon-row of graves in a nearby cemetery — for the world to ever remember what they sacrificed that June day.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.